Thursday, 26 March 2009

Where Books Are Sold

Most books are still sold in real, physical bookshops and not online, despite claims to the contrary by many of the vanity presses and self-publishing services.

There are exceptions: few textbooks ever make it into bookshops and are instead sold direct from the publisher to the end-user, sometimes through the university or school. Few self-published titles or vanity-published titles make it into many shops either: most of these books are sold via the internet, or as a result of the authors’ efforts to sell into individual bookshops. But their overall sales are notoriously low, which has a lot to do with the fact that they just don’t get the exposure to their potential readers which comes with bookshop placement.

31 comments:

BuffySquirrel said...

Sometimes I feel like setting up a little stall outside Waterstones to flog magazines...unfortunately that's called "trading without a licence"!

Jane Smith said...

And if the police came and took you away you'd be in big trouble: it's against the law to release trapped squirrels back into the wild. They'd either have to keep you in custody for ever, or--gulp--do, er, something else to you.

Run, Buffy, run!

April L. Hamilton said...

With all due respect, your contention that most books are still sold in brick-and-mortar bookshops is incorrect: only 32% of them were in 2007 per a Zogby/Random House study released on 5/29/08, and that number has been steadily decreasing ever since.

I went over the results of the Zogby/RH study at length in my blog post, Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch, which also includes a link to Zogby's results as reported on their own site, but I'll offer some of the details here.

Per the study, when asked where they'd made most of their book purchases in the past year, 43% of respondents said online, 32% said in brick-and-mortar chain stores, 9% named indie brick-and-mortar bookstores, and the remaining 16% of responses weren't broken out in detail---but it's a certainty that the last 16% did not make most of their book purchases in brick-and-mortar, chain bookstores.

More recently, on 3/26/09 publisher Morris Rosenthal reported that by the end of 2008, Amazon's sales had eclipsed the brick-and-mortar chains by over $1.5M. More telling still, sales at both brick-and-mortar chains are trending downward, while Amazon's sales continue their upward trajectory.

Now that Borders & B&N, the two largest brick-and-mortar bookseller chains in the US, are both struggling and reducing their in-store stock of books, even mainstream-published authors are no longer guaranteed to see their books shelved in those chains. Given that mainstream publishers aren't fighting this trend, nor even registering any complaints against it, I can only conclude that even they no longer believe brick-and-mortar bookstore presence is very important to any given book's success.

Jane Smith said...

April, thank you for that amazing comment--I'm grateful for it.

I don't have time to respond fully right now, but I will do so as soon as I can: please don't think I'm ignoring you. Meanwhile, I'd like to point out that the Zogby report which you refer to, and seem to rely on for most of your stats, is based on an online survey, for which I believe the people surveyed self-selected by applying online, and as such is strongly swayed in favour of online activity; and it's not based on stats about books sold, but on the respondents' preferences, which are difficult to quantify and prove.

My stats and information comes from sources which are based on numbers of books sold, in all venues: those are hard statistics, and not reported preferences.

I'm interested: do you have a source which gives actual sales statistics for sales made online vs. physical stores? Which are sorted into category so they're not skewed by things like textbooks, or diaries? I'd really like to get my hands on figures like those!

April L. Hamilton said...

Here are the stats you've requested Jane, taken from SEC filings and quarterly/annual reports:
http://www.fonerbooks.com/booksale.htm

Even if self-selection has prejudiced the Zogby poll, these book sales figures don't lie. Amazon is where most books are sold today.

Jane Smith said...

That's not clear from the source you've given, I'm afraid, April: those figures only provide turnover figures, not book sold; and the Amazon figures include turnover for "books, music, DVDs", which is bound to bump their figures up considerably when you consider what a huge market music and DVDs occupy.

April L. Hamilton said...

Since Borders & B&N don't break out their book sales separately from their DVD and music sales either, the only way to accurately compare sales for those two outfits against Amazon is to leave the DVDs and music in the figures.

The fact that Borders & B&N continue to reduce their in-store stock of books while Amazon offers an ever-increasing catalog of titles is proof enough that not only are most books *not* sold in chain bookstores, the majority of books currently in print *can't be bought* in chain bookstores.

They can be *ordered*, to be sure, but if you're going to have to place an order for the book you want, you might as well place that order with Amazon since you're likely to get the book at a lower price and can probably get free shipping as well.

Also, if it's true that most books are bought in chain bookstores, why would those bookstores feel themselves under threat from book sales at the likes of Target, CostCo, supermarkets and Amazon, as CEOs at both Borders and B&N have said? Clearly, the chains themselves no longer assume they enjoy market domination.

Jane Smith said...

Since Borders & B&N don't break out their book sales separately from their DVD and music sales either, the only way to accurately compare sales for those two outfits against Amazon is to leave the DVDs and music in the figures.

Yes, that works if you want to compare their turnover but it doesn't work if you're interested in finding out which ones sell the most books. For that you have to provide stats on how many books they sell.

B&N, Amazon and Borders all sell pencils: based on the assumptions you've made here, you would therefore conclude from this data that Amazon sells the most pencils.

Your logic is sadly lacking, April.

None of the references you've provided so far show that online sales of books are greater than physical sales. I shall repeat my earlier question:

"I'm interested: do you have a source which gives actual sales statistics for sales made online vs. physical stores? Which are sorted into category so they're not skewed by things like textbooks, or diaries? I'd really like to get my hands on figures like those!"

April L. Hamilton said...

I am going to withdraw from this debate now, because given that you've chosen to ignore the latter two points in my last comment, I can tell your mind is already made up and it's a waste of my time to try and convince you otherwise.

Jane Smith said...

April, I'm sorry you feel that way.

On the point of people not answering questions, I'd really like to see dependable statistics to back up your assertions. I've asked you for these twice now, but you have so far failed to provide them and instead have referred to information which doesn't actually say what you seem to think it does.

And this makes me wonder: are you really refusing to engage because I haven't addressed two incidental points that you made? Or could it be that you can't provide the statistics to back up your assertions because you don't have them, and are instead relying on assumption and opinion, rather than any real information or research?

I offer you the heartiest of apologies if I've got hold of the wrong end of the stick here: but it certainly seems that way to me right now.

April L. Hamilton said...

Jane -
My points were hardly incidental.

As you and I both know, statistics can be used to prove anything, statistics are only as valid as their sources, and unless you and I agree on a source we will both accept ahead of time I can't be sure my time in locating that statistic won't be wasted. Given any statistic I present, you can ultimately denounce the source or re-interpret the data given. In fairness, that's something I could do as well if you are the one presenting the statistics. That's why I offered non-statistical arguments based on simple logic instead.

In any event, as I said before, I can tell your mind is already made up and I'm wasting my time here.

Jane Smith said...

April, I'm glad you came back. Thanks for that.

From my point of view, you've been presenting statistics which haven't backed up your assertions. I agree with you that stats can be used to present any viewpoint at all if you manipulate them correctly. The one thing that can't, though, in this context, is hard numbers of actual copies sold, from a source which we can both verify and which is unbiased. If we had those, we could both be satisfied with them and we could agree on something which, despite your worries, is what I'd like to do here. I don't want to WIN, I want to clarify: and if you read through more of this blog you'll see several instances where I've changed my viewpoint because of evidence offered, and information received.

Which is why I've twice now asked you this:

I'm interested: do you have a source which gives actual sales statistics for sales made online vs. physical stores? Which are sorted into category so they're not skewed by things like textbooks, or diaries? I'd really like to get my hands on figures like those!

I'm asking you a third time now for stats which show actual numbers of books sold by both online and physical booksellers. Not their sales revenues, their turnovers, or anything else: just real, verifiable stats of actual copies sold.

I really would like this blog to be a venue where people can engage in strong and informed debate. Which is why I've been hard on you here: I can't allow misinformation to be presented as fact, nor will I allow for stats to be presented as if they prove something that they just don't. I have to be stringent about everything I write, and allow from the people who comment here, or the information I provide is useless.

So here's an olive branch: please, please. Provide me with the sales stats I've asked for; or help me find them out; or provide a few more links like the ones you've already given and we'll see if we can work out what the truth is here. Because I hate this taking sides, and confrontation: it proves nothing. Open, informed debate is much more useful, and far better than empty rhetoric that is so often indulged in.

April L. Hamilton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
April L. Hamilton said...

Jane -
Since it was you who originally asserted that brick-and-mortar chains are where most books are sold, and you refuse to accept the data I've offered as valid, why don't you share the sources upon which you're basing *your* assertion?

Since you say you'd like to get your hands on data that compare online vs. brick-and-mortar book sales, I can only conclude that you have no such data. I tried to move the discussion away from statistics, but you held firm. Very well, have it your way.

In the absence of the very data you are demanding in order to disprove my statements, how do you intend to prove your own?

Jane Smith said...

Just in case you delete your latest comment too, April, I'll quote it here and reply to it at the same time.

Since it was you who originally asserted that brick-and-mortar chains are where most books are sold, and you refuse to accept the data I've offered as valid, why don't you share the sources upon which you're basing *your* assertion?

April, it's not that I refuse to accept your data as vaild: it just wasn't valid. There's a big difference between those two assertions.

Since you say you'd like to get your hands on data that compare online vs. brick-and-mortar book sales, I can only conclude that you have no such data.

Once again, April, you throw yourself into a conclusion based on your own erroneous assumptions.

I don't have any data which proves your assertion that online booksellers are outstripping brick and mortar booksellers; only that which proves the point I made in my original post. Which is why I've asked you three times now to provide the data to support your assertion. And yet you still haven't. Why is that, April?

I tried to move the discussion away from statistics, but you held firm. Very well, have it your way.

Actually, that's not quite how I remember this discussion. You disagreed with my original post here, and I asked you to provide evidence which supported your view. You have repeatedly failed to do so and have instead attempted to divert attention from that by changing the subject. That won't work with me, I'm afraid.

In the absence of the very data you are demanding in order to disprove my statements, ...

Actually, April, I've been asking for data which proves your statements, not data which disproves it.

... how do you intend to prove your own?

By blogging about it soon. Right now I'm in the process of obtaining permission from the copyright holders of the various reports concerned to quote them extensively here. Meanwhile, here's my question a fourth time in case you can't find it for yourself:

I'm interested: do you have a source which gives actual sales statistics for sales made online vs. physical stores? Which are sorted into category so they're not skewed by things like textbooks, or diaries? I'd really like to get my hands on figures like those!

I'd really appreciate it if you could provide me with those statistics, April, because if I'm wrong then I do really want to know: I'd hate to provide misinformation to anyone, and hope that you'll provide me with the appropriate information in your next post here.

But please don't return if all you're going to do is carp on about how wrong I am, because if you don't have any backup for your claims then all you do is discredit yourself; and if you delete another one of your posts then be aware that I receive email notifications of each and every one of them, and I will repost them if I consider that necessary.

April L. Hamilton said...

Jane -
So in other words, you *don't* currently have the data to back up your claim.

It may be forthcoming, from a source others may or may not agree is valid, in which case you'll offer only excerpts from it, and your readers won't be able to verify that data independently (as they can with the SEC filings and quarterly reports upon which my claim is based), but at present you can't offer the same data you're demanding of me.

You choose to discount the data I've provided on the grounds it only covers "turnover" as opposed to sales, but since Amazon doesn't have "turnover" the way a brick-and-mortar store does, your grounds for dismissing the Amazon data are invalid.

Amazon reports only sales, not "turnover", because they only report on items purchased and then shipped from their warehouses. They don't return book orders to publishers the way stores do, because they don't have limited shelf space upon which they only wish to display the newest and best-selling items. They have enormous warehouses. "Turnover" is not applicable to their business model in the same way it is to brick-and-mortar chains. If the brick-and-mortar chains are reporting only turnover, not sales, as you claim, then in fact Amazon is outselling them by an even greater margin.

I will not be prodded back into this black hole of a baseless argument again. I've made my points, and I've backed them up with data that's readily accessible to anyone reading this, as well as simple logic. Cherry pick your data and interpretations if you wish; it won't alter the fact that Amazon is a growing and healthy business while Borders is on the verge of bankruptcy and B&N sales have continued to slip from quarter to quarter. It's quite obvious who's selling the most, and whose business has the most staying power. For you to keep denying it is just silly, and I don't know why you're so desperate to do so.

You make demands on others you are not willing to meet yourself. You post your personal opinions as facts. You claim to be a publishing professional of over 25 years, yet never say where, or with whom you worked, nor in what capacity or how long ago. Trying to carry on a reasoned discussion with you about the current state of the publishing business is like trying to catch the wind in a bottle, and just as pointless. In any event, I'm done here. I'd rather spend my time and energy on forward-thinking people who are excited about the new possibilities in publishing.

(And I only deleted my last comment because I wanted to alter the wording slightly. No option to 'edit' was available, so I was forced to copy it, delete it, then paste it into a new comment and edit. Frankly, I couldn't care less that you were notified.)

Jane Smith said...

Here we go again.

So in other words, you *don't* currently have the data to back up your claim.

That’s not what I wrote at all. I do have the data, I just don’t have the copyright holder’s permission to quote from it as extensively as I need to in order to present all the appropriate information. You’re leaping to the wrong conclusion again, April.

It may be forthcoming, from a source others may or may not agree is valid, in which case you'll offer only excerpts from it, and your readers won't be able to verify that data independently (as they can with the SEC filings and quarterly reports upon which my claim is based), but at present you can't offer the same data you're demanding of me.

Oh, the source is very valid, April. Don't worry. It's an industry standard. But in order to avoid the “excerpts” trap that you describe I need to provide extensive quotes. As that’s not covered by fair use, I need to get permission before I do so. And I resent your assertion that I would manipulate data in order to deceive. You're perilously close to libel there.

You choose to discount the data I've provided on the grounds it only covers "turnover" as opposed to sales, but since Amazon doesn't have "turnover" the way a brick-and-mortar store does, your grounds for dismissing the Amazon data are invalid.

Every business has a turnover, regardless of how it operates: it’s the amount of money which rolls into and out of its bank account over a year, before you take away the expenses of running that business. What’s left over is the profit, give or take. You could call it gross income, perhaps.

Amazon reports only sales, not "turnover", because they only report on items purchased and then shipped from their warehouses. They don't return book orders to publishers the way stores do, because they don't have limited shelf space upon which they only wish to display the newest and best-selling items. They have enormous warehouses.

Are you sure that Amazon doesn’t make returns? What about hurts or damages? Regardless of who is right on this point, though, Amazon still has a turnover to report. And the size of its warehouses has nothing to do with this at all.

"Turnover" is not applicable to their business model in the same way it is to brick-and-mortar chains. If the brick-and-mortar chains are reporting only turnover, not sales, as you claim, then in fact Amazon is outselling them by an even greater margin.

Turnover is not just applicable but essential to every business model. And yes, it’s those sales figures that are essential here: not turnover, not sales value, not returns, and certainly not the size of Amazon's warehouses, but the actual number of books sold online sellers compared to physical sellers. I keep on asking you for those figures, but you keep on ignoring that.

I will not be prodded back into this black hole of a baseless argument again.

You wrote that before and back you came. And resorting to ad hominem attacks only reveals how insecure your real argument is.

I've made my points, and I've backed them up with data that's readily accessible to anyone reading this, as well as simple logic.

You’ve not used simple logic, April, you’ve used flawed logic. The two are completely different.

Cherry pick your data and interpretations if you wish; it won't alter the fact that Amazon is a growing and healthy business while Borders is on the verge of bankruptcy and B&N sales have continued to slip from quarter to quarter. It's quite obvious who's selling the most, and whose business has the most staying power. For you to keep denying it is just silly, and I don't know why you're so desperate to do so.

You were the one who cherrypicked stats, though, not me. And the issue isn't which business is thriving and which is struggling: the issue is where most books are sold, online or in physical shops. Stop changing the subject, April. If it's so obvious which business is selling the most, why don't you provide the data that prove it? And if you read back through my comments you'll notice that I've not denied that your claims are true: I've just asked you to back them up with reliable, quantitative data. Repeatedly. And you still haven't done so.

You make demands on others you are not willing to meet yourself. You post your personal opinions as facts.

The pot and the kettle spring to mind here, April.

You claim to be a publishing professional of over 25 years, yet never say where, or with whom you worked, nor in what capacity or how long ago.

There's plenty of information about me on the internet but I'm not the point of this blog: publishing is.

Trying to carry on a reasoned discussion with you about the current state of the publishing business is like trying to catch the wind in a bottle, and just as pointless. In any event, I'm done here. I'd rather spend my time and energy on forward-thinking people who are excited about the new possibilities in publishing.

Another promise to leave and not come back. I think that's the third time you've written that now. I wonder if you mean it this time? And some more ad hominem attacks, too. Bad show, April.

(And I only deleted my last comment because I wanted to alter the wording slightly. No option to 'edit' was available, so I was forced to copy it, delete it, then paste it into a new comment and edit. Frankly, I couldn't care less that you were notified.)

Bearing in mind your reluctance to answer a straight question, I'm glad you can't edit your posts here.

Now, just in case you do come back (and I wouldn't be surprised if you did), I shall ask my question again.

I'm interested: do you have a source which gives actual sales statistics for sales made online vs. physical stores? Which are sorted into category so they're not skewed by things like textbooks, or diaries? I'd really like to get my hands on figures like those!

Blimey O'Reilly. I'm beginning to feel like Jeremy Paxman here.

Zoe Winters said...

My question is... as per your discussion with April... if you'd "like to get your hands on stats like those" then where are YOUR stats coming from that gave you the authority to say most book sales were happening in brick and mortar stores?

Oh, that's right, you don't have the "rights" to quote it as extensively as you'd like. I find that incredibly convenient.

The facts are that the big chain bookstores are failing, as big chain music stores did before them. A lot of sales are moving online.

It wouldn't be unreasonable to think that in the next 10 years books will be sold mainly through online and places like walmart.

This is a threat to anyone who isn't a bestselling author because many midlisters their only shot for sales in any way differentiated from indie authors on Amazon, are brick and mortar sales. But if Walmart and Costco and Target are their only sales outlets besides the internet (where anyone can sell), then midlisters will be shoved out while higher selling authors take the last remaining shelf space at walmart.

I'm not going to provide you with "statistics" because clearly you aren't willing to deal with any numbers. The issue here in this debate that I've seen is... "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." Even imperfect statistics can point toward a fruitful debate, whereas the most perfect statistics that you, for whatever nebulous reason can't share with us, do nothing to further a discussion.

We're all just expected to trust that A. you do in fact have these fabulous statistics that you just can't share and B. They actually mean what you think they mean.

That's a lot of trust. And it's unreasonable for you to ask it. So in the absence of your ability to present your own statistical information, it's ludicrous to expect April to present the same type of information.

Couldn't she have just as easily said: "Oh, I've got it, I'm just not authorized to share it. And trust me, it's everything I think it is?"

Wow. Just wow.

At the end of the day I think the issue is, WHY is this so important to you? Why are you like a dog with a bone about the brick and mortar sales issue? My personal belief (which I can't back up with statistics, so you'll likely ignore it or deny it) is what I said above about the palpable fear in mainstream publishing right now with regards to sales outlets.

If everything fails but indie bookstores, places like walmart, and online venues, where does that leave most midlist authors, and wannabe NY pubbed authors? In a far worse place than they're already at.

So it's comforting to think that NY publication still gives you this far superior distribution automatically. But it just doesn't. Not every NY pubbed book even gets shelf space in most stores.

But... If your assertion is correct, if most of the book sales, actual end customer sales, are still happening in the brick and mortar bookstores, then we all have bigger problems to worry about.

I think that's the real issue here.

Jane Smith said...

Gosh, Zoe, that was a long comment. Thank you for making the effort: it's appreciated.

Thanks for reminding me about the statistics: I've let that lapse, and must get back to the rights-holders. The thing is that I don't have the rights to quote extensively and while that might seem convenient to you, it's very inconvenient for me: I can either infringe the rights-holder's copyright and leave myself open to legal action, or just not give the stats, which leaves me open to criticism such as yours. But as copyright infringement is against the law, I know which option I have to take.

You wrote, It wouldn't be unreasonable to think that in the next 10 years books will be sold mainly through online and places like walmart.I'm not sure about Walmart (supermarkets offer such a limited range of titles, so I can't see it happening): but I agree with you about online sales taking an increasing share of the market in years to come (and this has, in fact, been discussed on The Bookseller's website lately, with statistics which back up that view: I'll see if I can find a link). The thing is that online sales don't yet account for the majority of books sold. And while writers are marketing books which are available NOW, it's what's happening now that they have to consider. That's not to say that writers shouldn't look to the future: just that they shouldn't restrict themselves looking to the future, at the cost of dealing with the present day (sorry, that's rambling, but I hope it makes sense).

I'm not going to provide you with "statistics" because clearly you aren't willing to deal with any numbers.No, that's completely wrong: I love statistics, so long as they aren't used to "prove" something that they patently DON'T prove. I've seen so many people trip themselves up by relying on information which didn't actually say what they said it did: it has the effect of devaluing everything else that they write, which isn't good. I'm planning on writing a short series about logic, research and statistics soon, and hope you find it useful.

Here's the thing, though: I don't think that mainstream publishing is at all worried about book sales emigrating to online stores, or to Walmart taking over the bookselling world. So long as mainstream publishing sells the books that it publishes, it doesn't care where those sales are made: it will still make money on every single one of them, and that's its bottom line. Yes, things can and will change--they always have, and always will--but so long as there are readers out there who want good books to read, the mainstream publishers will have a place in the market.

Zoe Winters said...

Hey Jane,

I'm sorry if I came off a bit spazzy there. I'd be interested in seeing the statistics you've seen when you have the right to use them. Until that point they're theoretical since I don't know you from Adam, and even if I did, I can't count on your interpretation necessarily being the correct one.

Either way... I have no idea personally where the most actual books are sold. I don't really care either, because it doesn't ultimately affect me. There is a large enough audience for me to seek out and find on the internet, (i.e. I can market for years and years and never exhaust my potential reader base online) so whether more people buy books online or in bookstores is irrelevant for me.

But we do know that there is a shift toward increasing online shopping for books. How far that shift has gotten at this point is the argument. I don't know the answer to that with any certainty, but I know the direction the trend is going in.

I also know that what is going on with the big chain bookstores currently is pretty much exactly what went on with the big chain music stores before they went under.

Will the chain bookstores go under like the chain music stores? I don't know, but if they do, it's a problem for pretty much every author but those in the top strata of the traditional publishing model and indie authors who aren't that affected but may benefit slightly.

It doesn't affect big publishing "that much." They may have to tighten their belts more and focus even more strongly on blockbusters, but that's a trend they've been heading toward anyway.

The problem isn't really for the big trad publishers. (who I don't think will vanish, btw.) The problem is for authors and aspiring authors who I'm assuming is your blog audience.

The midlist would become pretty much "author death row." Because while the chances of a midlist author being dropped by their publisher now are pretty high, they'd be astronomical if the only sales outlets outside the internet were small bookshops, walmarts and costcos, and supermarkets. (You're right, I forgot to mention supermarkets, but they do have an even smaller selection than Walmart.)

There might be some hope if publishers had been able to sell their books off their own websites in large numbers, and if they'd developed strong enough publishing brand names that people would go to them as a brand. (Harlequin is the only publisher I know who has accomplished this type of branding.)

But if and when much of the midlist is mainly on Amazon and other online sales venues, there isn't much left that differentiates them from an indie author or small press author. So what then?

I know this may veer from your original point, but your point IMO "seemed" to be that traditional publishing is still a better/safer bet for people because most books are still sold (according to you) in bookstores.

continued...

Zoe Winters said...

So if this really is a post propping up trad publishing as "you're really better off" than with going indie, hmmm, I'm really not so sure about that. Maybe this exact second, but not over the long haul, not in my opinion.

In ten years if I produce one book a year I'll have ten books out, my entire backlist in print. Unless a trad published author is famous they will NOT have their entire backlist in print. There is no equity in that. And as sales shift more and more online, there becomes less of a reason to even involve a traditional publisher, unless they can push you farther than you can push yourself. And if they can't get you into any sales outlets you can't get into on your own... well you see where I'm going with this.

But since most writers really are not entrepreneurial enough to self publish successfully, despite how increasingly crappy the trad publishing system is getting, it will still be the better option for most people to go trad. But it won't be the better option based on the assertion that "more books are still sold in real, physical bookshops," as that, if true, is a trend that doesn't seem likely to last.

Sorry that was so rambling, I hope it made some level of sense. I guess what I'm trying to do is get to the issue behind the issue. Without seeing your statistics and comparing them against April's I can't make an informed inference either way with regards to sales stats. But, my point is, I don't really have to, because no one is arguing where the trend-line is heading. They're just nitpicking over actual exact numbers this moment. Which seems like a fruitless debate when it's not even the actual issue. Or the thing authors and potential authors need to concern themselves with in looking toward their future prospects.

April L. Hamilton said...

So, you're still hungering for statistics, eh? How about *these*?

"Borders Group managed to improve cash flow and cut its debt in the first quarter, but the bookstore chain continued to struggle with sales as total revenue fell 12.1% in the period ended May 2, to $641.5 million. Sale at the superstores, which now includes Borders.com, fell 10.7%, to $536.7 million with comp sales off 13.5%. Sales at the Waldenbooks specialty group fell 19.9%, to $76.9 million, due to a combination of 11 store closures and a 5.5% drop in same store sales. A series of one-time expenses ate into the company’s bottomline resulting in a loss from continuing operations of $86 million compared to a loss of $30.1 million in last year’s first quarter. On an operating basis, the loss was $15.9 million down from $30.5 million in the comparable period in 2008."

So Borders has posted multi-million dollar losses over the past two years. The source is Publisher's Weekly, article dated today:
http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6660709.html?desc=topstory

Publisher's Weekly also reported on B&N's decreases in sales and net income on 3/19 of this year:

"Barnes & Nobles results for the year ended January 31 confirmed what, in the words of CEO Steve Riggio, was “the most challenging year that the company and the industry have ever experienced.” Moreover, Riggio does not see things improving in 2009. Forecast for the first quarter calls for a 6% to 9% decline in comp store sales with same store sales falling 4% to 6% for the full year.

Total revenue at the nations’ largest bookstore chain fell 3% in the year, to $5.12 billion, and although the retailer remained quite profitable, net income fell 44%, to $75.9 million. Earnings include a $9.7 million charge on the sale of the Calendar Club plus a $2.5 million charge connected to its downsizing efforts which eliminated about 100 jobs. For the year, store sales were down 2.7%, to $4.5 billion as comp store sales fell 5.4%. Barnes & Noble.com had a disappointing year with sales down 1.3%, to $466 million."

Here's the link, if you want to verify the info:
http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6645200.html?q=B%26N+sales

Nitpick the specifics of "returns" and B&N's vicarious profitability if you will, but surely even *you* can no longer dispute the fact that these two chains---the largest brick-and-mortar bookstores in the U.S.---are failing, while Amazon continues chugging along with profitability increases quarter to quarter. I can already anticipate your response, that this is merely because Amazon sells more than just books, but in the end such arguments are irrelevant. The bookseller that survives is, by default, the top bookseller.

Zoe Winters said...

April,

Well and also, one of the reasons brick and mortar bookstores have coffee shops and all that non-book related crap at the front of the store, is that they can't turn a profit with only books.

Jane Smith said...

“Spazzy”, Zoe? “SPAZZY”? That’s a really nasty word; it’s highly insulting to everyone with cerebral palsy, and to their families and friends, and I object to its use very strongly. I did consider deleting your post because of it: I will if you use it again. You’re a writer: you should be more aware of the power of the words that you’re using.

As you’ve posted such a long comment I’ll respond to it para by para, to try to avoid missing anything out. It will be disjointed, but I hope it’s understandable.

You’re right that there’s an increasing shift towards online sales: that’s not under dispute. If you’re happy and successful marketing online then the point I made in my original post isn’t a big issue for you (and I believe you’re only marketing e-books, not a print edition, which removes you even further from the usefulness of my post). But the writers who want to make maximum potential sales of printed books have to consider where most sales are made.

I’m in the UK and I don’t think any of our big music stores have gone into administration lately apart from Zavvi, which as I understand it failed because of problems with its business plan (over-optimistic expansions, trouble with its distribution chain after Woolworths went under, that sort of thing) rather than problems with the way it was exploiting the market. So it could be we’re talking about different things here.

You wrote, “It doesn't affect big publishing "that much." They may have to tighten their belts more and focus even more strongly on blockbusters, but that's a trend they've been heading toward anyway.”

Here I disagree with you: I think publishing would do well to focus LESS on blockbusters and high-advance celebrity books, and MORE on good books. But then I’m odd like that and I know there are big publishers who disagree with me. Like you, I doubt the big publishers will disappear: the recession will probably going to hit independent presses the hardest (as opposed to the “indie” publishers which we might also call self-publishers). Salt Publishing announced recently that it was in serious trouble; if you read the Snowbooks sales blog you’ll see that its sales figures are down, too. It’s these excellent independent publishers which have traditionally published the more dangerous, cutting-edge stuff, and if they go we lose something very valuable indeed.

Walmart and supermarkets: again, USA vs UK. Walmart here is represented by Asda, which is a supermarket. I think we were talking at odds there, and hope all is sorted out now.

As for the recession: recessions aren’t indefinite: they end, and when this one ends there will still be bookshops on our streets, as there were last time and the time before.

As for what differentiates mainstream publishers from self-published authors, that one’s easy: the average quality of the books they publish. While some self-publishers do produce excellent books the majority don’t; most mainstream books are thoughtfully edited, professionally designed, and represent the best of the books submitted, which adds a strong layer of quality control to the output. Most self-published books are not edited in any real sense of the word; the design is abysmal; and there’s no one out there telling the worst writers, with the worst ideas, that their books aren’t yet good enough to meet the market. I know it's not a popular view among self-publishers, but I think it's the Big Problem for the more dynamic ones because it drags the good down with the bad.

As for my original point: so long as it’s the case that most sales are made in bookshops, and mainstream publishing gets more books into those shops where they can be sold, then yes, it’s a “better” option for the writer who aspires to high levels of sales. When that changes then there’ll be a different “better” for writers to consider. But until then, we have to be realistic and no amount of rhetoric is going to change the facts.

Jane Smith said...

Onto Zoe's next comment:

This post is “propping up” “traditional” publishing? No. I’m too insignificant to prop up mainstream publishing; if it did need any propping it would call in experts who are far more dynamic than me. All I do here is report its inner workings, which I’ve observed and taken part in for rather a long time.

I’m resistant to the terms “traditional publisher” and “indie publisher”. “Traditional” publishing is a term that was invented by PublishAmerica in order to improve its own image. I’ve seen too many statements about “traditional” publishing which have clearly been designed to draw the na├»ve into vanity publishing to be able to read it without wincing. I use “mainstream” but that term isn’t entirely satisfactory either, and doesn’t adequately describe all that it incorporates.

As for “indie”: how does that work in relation to the independent presses like Canongate and Snowbooks? They’re independent because they’re not part of the big conglomerates like Random House and Penguin; having two so similar terms makes it even more confusing for novices to the publishing world, I’m afraid. And it’s already far too confusing as it is.

About half the books I’ve worked on over the years are still in print, and are still earning good royalties for their authors. They’re all published by the mainstream publishers you say won’t keep books in print; and not one was written by a famous author. Of the rest, the rights have reverted to the authors concerned; about half of those writers have gone on to sell those rights elsewhere, so their books have been published in new editions, earning them further advances and royalties, and the resulting marketing (carried out by their new publishers) has brought them more new readers. Everyone wins.

As for your point about the shift of sales towards online outlets making mainstream publishers defunct: why? Those books will still need to be properly designed, edited, printed and distributed (even Amazon has a warehouse, with deliveries from distributors); the end result is a higher-quality (and therefore, higher-value) book, which is going to attract more readers. Sure, writers can do without those things: but then the books just aren’t so good; reader loyalty is lower; sales of all following books are going to be lower too. It’s a chain reaction.

Further, if I, as a writer, want to concentrate on writing my new books rather than on marketing and selling my old ones (and so making it possible to publish perhaps TWO new books a year to your one), then it seems to me those mainstream publishers are still essential regardless of where the books end up being sold from.

As for nitpicking about where the real sales are made right now seeming “like a fruitless debate when it's not even the actual issue”, that IS the actual issue here. This blog post, the one that you’re commenting on right here, is about where most commercial books are sold right now. Not whether mainstream publishing is better than self-publishing, or anything else.

Jane Smith said...

April: how nice to have you back.

Those are interesting statistics: they report how both Borders and Barnes and Noble’s sales have been falling for the last year or two. I don’t disagree with you about that at all: it’s clear for all to see. But my original point wasn’t about anyone’s profitability: it was that more books are still sold in real, physical shops than are sold from online booksellers.

You disputed that, and claimed that more were sold online. I’ve asked you to prove it but despite offering all sorts of reports to support your argument, you still haven’t managed to do that yet. And you’ve presented arguments which look good on the surface but just don’t hold any water when you look at them more closely. If you're interested, here's an article which claims that only 15% of book sales are made online compared to 85% in book shops; another piece posted on the Bookseller blog recently discussed how it's going to take about five years for online sales to overtake sales made in physical bookshops, but I can't find that link right now. Neither support your claim, do they?

You wrote, “…surely even *you* can no longer dispute the fact that these two chains---the largest brick-and-mortar bookstores in the U.S.---are failing, while Amazon continues chugging along with profitability increases quarter to quarter. I can already anticipate your response, that this is merely because Amazon sells more than just books, but in the end such arguments are irrelevant. The bookseller that survives is, by default, the top bookseller.”

Hmm. I think your logic here is deeply flawed. If it’s irrelevant to separate out Amazon’s other income-streams when considering Amazon’s status in the bookselling marketplace, then that has to hold true for everything Amazon sells. So by your logic not only does Amazon’s huge turnover make it the best bookseller there is; it also has to be the best toy soldier seller, and the best seller of shoes, boots, bikes, TVs, kettles, toasters, garden sprayers and everything else that it sells. Simply because it has a big turnover and is relatively profitable.

April, some of the articles you’ve written have been wonderful: beautifully written, passionately argued, intelligent, articulate and well-informed, and I admire you for those pieces. But when you base your arguments on such flawed logic you lose all credibility, and the good points that you make are dismissed along with the bad. Instead of commenting so much about how mainstream publishing is failing, why don’t you comment more about how to improve self-publishing? I don’t see the two sides as being in opposition: there’s clearly room for both, and there are times when self-publishing is a more appropriate choice than mainstream and vice versa. Both have a lot to learn from one another; but so long as this hostility thrives, that’s not going to happen.

Jane Smith said...

Zoe Winters wrote, "Well and also, one of the reasons brick and mortar bookstores have coffee shops and all that non-book related crap at the front of the store, is that they can't turn a profit with only books."

Zoe, do you really think that bookshops can't turn a profit from the books that they sell? Really? Can't you see the contradictions which that statement contains?

Zoe Winters said...

Jane, I really think if the only thing bookstores were selling was books that they wouldn't turn a strong enough profit to stay in business, yes.

Over the years they've had more and more non-book related crap at the front of the stores and those items bring in a higher per item profit than the books do.

I'm not saying they don't turn a profit with books. I'm saying that if all they were selling was books I don't believe they would be turning a strong enough profit to stay in business.

That is my opinion. You are free to feel it's idiotic if you like.

Jane Smith said...

Zoe, I don't think it was idiotic of you to suggest that, and I'm sorry if my comment implied that--I just wasn't sure if you were joking or not.

I don't think that you're right on this point: it's all about diversification. I shall now tell you a true story to illustrate this.

My parents have always had their own businesses. About 25 years ago they moved to a big, derelict house on the Isle of Wight, and converted part of it into a few self-catering holiday appartments, which did very well.

They then converted the last portion of the house into a family restaurant (they lived in what had been the gardener's cottage, which came last in the queue for renovation as my parents understand prioritising, too). That did well, too; it benefitted their other business because people who came to stay knew that if they didn't feel like cooking for themselves, they could eat in the restaurant; and quite a few people who came to the restaurant saw the holiday flats, thought they looked good, and booked holidays with them. Win-win.

After that came the pitch and putt golf course. It brought people in who then ate in the restaurant; people who had come to eat often decided to have a quick round of golf before setting off for the beach; and the people who stayed in the flats got as many free goes as they wanted (you have to give SOMETHING away!).

The pitch and putt got so busy that my parents could no longer run it from the side of the restaurant, so they built a little gift-shop by the first tee, where they took the money from the golfers but also sold local gifts, ice-creams, and postcards. Because they sold local craft items, people in search of such stuff came out and stayed for tea, or played a round of p&P while they were there... you get the picture.

All those businesses did very well independently of each other; but they also complemented each other, and increased the takings on each individual business. So the profit from each individual business increased each time my parents started a new business. It was never a question of them finding a new income stream to supplement an existing one: more a question of working out how to maximise each income stream, and how to make each one as profitable as possible.

Which is, I bet, why some bookshops have integral coffe-shops, and sell stationery and booklights and gifts: it's diversification, not desperation.

April L. Hamilton said...

Jane -
The link you provided is to a BEA commentary about piracy, it has nothing to do with online vs. brick & mortar book sales.

Also, if you were more familiar with my work and positions re: indie vs. mainstream, you'd know that I've always said there's not only room for both, but a necessity for both.

As to the rest of it: I was done with that debate quite some time ago, after satisfying myself I'd posted adequate evidence here for anyone reading this to make up his or her own mind. I only came back to correct your implication that I don't believe there's room for both indie and mainstream in the publishing world.

Jane Smith said...

April, thanks for pointing out the problem with the link: this one should work a little better (you'll have to scroll down the page a little to find the statistics, to the section subtitled, "BEA Panel: Tie That Binds--Authors and Indie Booksellers").

You wrote, "Also, if you were more familiar with my work and positions re: indie vs. mainstream, you'd know that I've always said there's not only room for both, but a necessity for both."

At last: something we agree on. I'm amazed and relieved.

What I find difficult to swallowe are the many articles I read supporting self-publishing which rely on false information about mainstream publishing to prop up their arguments: such articles are very damaging to self-publishing, and only weakens its image in the eyes of the mainstream publishing professionals which read them. There's an awful lot of them on the internet, as I'm sure you'll be aware, and I don't think they help anyone. Which is why I'm so insistent on relying only on verifiable, unbiased facts.

You wrote, "I only came back to correct your implication that I don't believe there's room for both indie and mainstream in the publishing world."

April, I don't see how your post about Borders' and Barnes and Noble's trading figures addressed anything I might or might not have implied about your beliefs. I'm obviously being dense here because from where I'm standing, your earlier comment has nothing to do with that at all. Please explain it to me, because I just don't get it. And no, I'm not being sarcastic: I honestly am perplexed by this one.